Investing in telemedicine reduces the cost of medical emergencies and improves crew welfare, says Martyn Wingrove
Telemedicine is not mandatory as part of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) for seafarers’ rights. But it should be.
If there is an issue with the ship, crew members have to diagnose and then either repair it or wait for technical assistance. In an onboard medical emergency, it is the same, but their lives are at stake.
Mariners need the back-up of medical support to deal with illness and injuries without diverting to port or being taken by helicopter to a medical centre, and medical advice from a professional as quickly as possible after the emergency.
They need to be able to speak to shore-based medical professionals through video over IP on board their ship. It is enabled through telemedicine applications and satellite communications.
Telemedicine is a vital emergency service on ships which should be mandated as GMDSS, the global maritime distress and safety system, is.
It can be implemented by being added as an essential requirement in MLC or within another instrument of IMO. MLC aims to ensure comprehensive worldwide protection and enforcement of the rights of seafarers.
It was adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) member states in 2006. But, it is not yet universally accepted, with several seafarer-supply nations and countries with well-developed seafarer welfare facilities not yet signatories. Nonetheless, it would be an important step to include telemedicine within these regulations as a mandatory requirement.
However, ship operators should not wait to be forced into deploying telemedicine across their fleets. They should recognise the cost-saving, crew morale and operational benefits of having video links to medical professionals.
It is easy to see how crew morale and welfare can be improved. Seafarers would feel confident that there is medical advice from shore to back up onboard first aid facilities when required. Investment in crew welfare also generates positive performance responses from crew.
On the expenditure side, telemedicine is an added cost. However, so would a medical evacuation that could be avoided by having remote medical support.
Owners need to weigh up the costs of having to deal with a medical emergency on board, whether that involves hiring a helicopter to medivac the injured to shore, or diverting the vessel to port, versus the price of broadband and telemedicine applications.
This is a process Genavir, the vessel operating arm of the French Research Institute, Ifremer, went through recently. It deployed Marlink’s XChange Telemed on five oceangoing research vessels to minimise the impact of illness and injury.
Remote medical assistance is important for research vessels that may remain away from port for months. Prior to having telemedicine on board, any serious medical conditions or injuries on board could entail a return to port, resulting in a premature end to the ship’s mission.
XChange Telemed comes with certified medical equipment for onboard diagnostics, a touchscreen user interface and camera, a direct live video and secure data connection to doctors on shore. This is through a ship’s satellite communications, in the case of Genavir, its vessels’ VSAT connectivity.
It does not have to be a VSAT link either as providers of Inmarsat and Iridium L-band satellite communications also offer telemedicine solutions.
I am not advocating this particular telemedicine package. But, it is an example of what they incorporate and why telemedicine is important in a medical emergency.
Owners should understand the cost and operational benefits and then act to invest in telemedicine, whichever service they decide. They should not wait until it is mandated either by IMO or within MLC.
I predicted in a previous article that telemedicine and particularly crew biometrics, would be one of the top 10 technologies to have a positive impact on fleet management.
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